Samegrelo is a region in the west of Georgia, bordered by the Black Sea, the regions of Svaneti, Imereti, Guria, and the occupied territory of Abkhazia. This region has a deep and extensive historical past; to briefly summarize several centuries of history, Samegrelo was once a major part of the ancient Kingdom of Colchis and later was governed largely independently from the rest of Georgia by the noble Dadiani family. Samegrelo’s inhabitants are called Megrelians (also Mingrelians), who have their own language and cultural traditions.
The phrase “სამარგალო გვალო შხვა რე„ (Samegrelo is completely different) is an unofficial slogan of Samegrelo in the Megrelian language to signify Samegrelo’s cultural uniqueness. The Megrelian language is a relative of the Georgian language, but it is usually only spoken between Megrelians and not written. A few weekends ago, I went to Zugdidi, the regional capital of Samegrelo, to investigate makes Samegrelo so distinct from other regions.
Honestly, I can say that the major reason that I wanted to visit is because I absolutely love Megrelian food and wanted to go directly to the “source”. As a foreigner, I’m not stupid enough to start a heated debate about which region of Georgia has the best food, all of them are delicious and have their own regional specialties, but Megrelian food does have some unique features.
If you like 1) spicy food and 2) lots of cheese (and if you don’t like these two things you have other problems that I won’t go into), you will love Megrelian food. Some traditional Megrelian dishes are related to those found elsewhere in Georgia. For example, the Megrelians have their own version of the de facto national dish (khachapuri/cheese-stuffed bread). Except, not only do the Megrelians stuff the bread with cheese, they put even more cheese on top. In addition, Megrelian cuisine boasts classics like kharcho (a spicy meat stew, some versions thickened with walnut paste), kupati (spicy sausage), elarji (boiled cornmeal with cheese, by my estimations good versions are about 85% cheese, 15% cornmeal), and gebzhalia (cheese stuffed with mint, herbs, and spices)
All those dishes are great. However, one ingredient from this region is the star of the show, in my opinion. If the title of my blog (The Adjika Chronicles) is any indication, I have a completely (un)healthy obsession with adjika, the condiment made with spicy peppers, garlic, spices, and sometimes herbs that gives the cuisine of Samegrelo its particular “kick”. For those who haven’t tried it, it comes in red and green varieties (the green one is made from green chilies and has coriander and other herbs in it), and in a paste or dried form.
(left: red adjika, right, green adjika, bottom: dried adjika spices)
Adjika is widely imitated, but never duplicated. Basically, it became popular during the Soviet period and is re-created throughout the post-Soviet space in several countries, with some recipes adapting to local tastes by adding strange ingredients like apples, carrots, horseradish, and other things that should not be allowed within a 100-meter radius of adjika. Even the commercially produced varieties that are marketed as “Georgian adjika” water down the mixture by using tomatoes or sweet “Bulgarian” peppers, and are barely spicy. In my opinion, this should be grounds for imprisonment (OK, I’m joking, but an EU-style regulation to prevent makers from calling it “adjika” if it adds superfluous ingredients would be a welcome improvement).
I got off the day train from Tbilisi on Saturday to Zugdidi and instantly went to the Zugdidi bazari , an internationally recognized center of adjika production by enthusiasts worldwide. It is very easy to get lost in the winding stalls and relative chaos of the Saturday market, but in order to find the section of the market where adjika is sold, the only thing necessary is to follow your nose. Eventually, I arrived at a section of stalls selling a variety of spices and condiments, including every single variety of adjika. I decided immediately on which stall I would buy from; usually I find the oldest lady selling things and buy from her (experience is important!). After choosing an appropriate vendor, I explained my situation and promptly bought enough ajika to last me for at least a couple months; I don’t know how I will survive otherwise in the adjika desert that is the United States when I return. I sampled both the red and green varieties before the final purchase, and like scores of other adjika purists, I can now confirm that you haven’t really had the stuff until you tried it in Samegrelo. The red variety is brick-colored, salty, spicy, and pungent with garlic and the traditional spice blend khmeli suneli, while the green version tricks you with a refreshing herbal start followed by a subsequent blast of green chili. Both are incredible and worth a visit to Zugdidi alone.
But, there is only so much you can understand by trying the spices used to flavor a cuisine alone; it is more important to experience them in context. After making my purchases at the bazari, I went to a well-known restaurant in Zugdidi called “Mendzel” (Megrelian for “host”) to sample some traditional Megrelian food. I ordered the kharcho, elarji, and gebzhalia, and everything was absolutely delicious. A few observations:
- They do make the food much spicier in Samegrelo compared to when you order the same dishes at a restaurant in Tbilisi. I think it’s a similar phenomenon to the Thai/Indian/etc. restaurants in the US and the West that deliberately turn down the spiciness of their food to appeal to local palates.
- Elarji, and its cheese-less cousin ghomi are some of my favorite dishes because they remind me of the food I would have at my parents/grandparents’ house in the USA. (If you are American, especially if you are from the South, you should know that ghomi is 100% the same thing as grits, and elarji is essentially cheese grits. If you are Megrelian and reading this, Americans from the Southern states eat ghomi too, we call it “grits”. I don’t want you to be alarmed, but some Americans (not me) add sugar to their ghomi and eat it with breakfast. ონჯღორე ვა უჩქუნა! 😀 )
Zugdidi is also an interesting destination for anyone interested in languages and history. For instance, while all the signs are in Georgian (or English), almost everyone speaks Megrelian to one another. I needed coffee after the heavy lunch I ate, so I stopped in the McDonalds in Zugdidi to buy a coffee, and I heard someone ordering a Big Mac in Megrelian, which was honestly pretty cool. In other parts of Georgia, there are concerns that younger people aren’t learning the Megrelian language, but according to several people I asked, in Zugdidi nearly every Megrelian can speak their own language. Just like in the rest of the country, in Zugdidi everyone also speaks Georgian, the older generation speaks Russian, and the younger generation usually learns English at school. However, if two Megrelians are speaking in Zugdidi, chances are good that they will prefer to speak to one another in Megrelian.
One of the major attractions in Zugdidi is the palace of the Dadiani family, which now houses a museum. The Dadiani family was an ancient noble family who governed Samegrelo; they had links to several major European powers and were direct descendants of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the museum, there are a number of their special possessions, including a funerary mask of Napoleon, a shroud of the Virgin Mary, and their collection of art and literature (mostly in the French language). Apparently, several of the members of the Dadiani family were accomplished chess players who won several awards and prizes in tournaments throughout Europe.
(Palace of the Dadiani Family)
After visiting the museum and exploring the nearby botanical gardens (which at this time of year are not very “botanical”, unfortunately), I went over to a family guest house on the outskirts of Zugdidi. The owners were very nice and accommodating, and we talked for a while about the culture and customs of the region, as well as the demographics and dynamics of local tourism.
They said that one of the major roadblocks to tourism development in Zugdidi is getting people to stay in Zugdidi and experience Samegrelo’s regional attractions, and not view it as a transit point for other destinations. The way most tourists experience Zugdidi is travelling there via overnight train or marshrutka, and then promptly getting on another marshrutka to travel onwards to the Svaneti region. Obviously, Svaneti is great as well, but I hope this blog post convinces you to maybe spend a night or two in Zugdidi as well before travelling onward. Or, just go to Samegrelo by itself. I really enjoyed my brief stay and the combination of great food, unique language and culture, and historical attractions that Zugdidi has to offer!